Working with giant water tanks and a camera, a thirst to create something meaningful inspires artist Alexander James’s single edition prints
Alexander James is an artist wholly dedicated to his work, in a particularly literal way. All his photographs concern water, often submerging his subjects in huge tanks, capturing the natural world in complex ways and stunning detail.
“I’m not really a ‘throw a Tampax at a canvas for some publicity stunt’ kind of guy,” says James. His projects each have intensely personal roots. For example, having tired of hearing people speak about Russians “as if they’re all gangsters and prostitutes”, he packed up his entire studio and drove to Siberia to find out for himself.
“I was the first British artist in 30 years to do that – it was wonderful but hard, bunkered in an underground studio with no heating, bathroom or running water, sleeping on bales of hay for a year working on a show.” There he made a series depicting reactions between water and crude oil, exploring the importance of these liquids to human survival and industrial gain.
In London, James spent more than five years breeding bright blue butterflies in his studio for various series including Transparency of a Dream. “It’s a monastically engaging process. I was breeding from one generation to the next, kind of the holy grail of entomology,” he describes. “I just don’t see any purpose in anything I don’t have an emotional connection to. So these are my kids, flying around the studio. It sounds very elegant but when you wake up with enough bug s*** on your pillow you’ll soon change your mind.”
Yet it was “troublesome” to begin with. If a butterfly falls from its cocoon, it is likely to be paralysed. “I found this profoundly upsetting so I was up 24 hours a day, with thousands of butterflies darting around the studio,” says James. “I worked on it for eight months and didn’t leave the studio once. This is the most hunted animal on the planet – the Morpho monthonto, a South American species, with a wingspan of ten to 15cm. The Chinese harvest them for the prisms in their wings and scrape them for this lapis lazuli – the most sophisticated form of butchery – to be used in children’s jewellery.”
This particular species has a remarkable skill that allowed James to submerge them and take photographs (sometimes with bubbles sent strategically to the surface from beneath, avoiding the creature’s delicate wings) – all without injuring, or killing, them. “They’re not very energetic and need the sun to warm them up, but at night [in South America] it’s quite cold. They shut down, with a self-induced coma system. Its only trigger is temperature.”
James would drop the room temperature using air conditioning and choose his unconscious specimens to photograph. The butterfly would have no brain function until the temperature rose. “The surface tension of the water is my playground,” the artist describes. The camera is held out of the water, looking directly down into five or six-ton water tanks.
To James, the creation inside is the real artwork, and photography merely helps to “solidify” it. Some of the prints were produced years ago, but a series that takes a more political stance, The Death of the Dream of Democracy, was made this year. James spent just four days arranging about 2,000 rose and tulip petals into the Star-Spangled Banner. Some are coated in 24-carat gold leaf, questioning the integrity of the flag and expressing concern for the country’s condition.
“I don’t socialise or go to parties, I’m an utter recluse. The work is the sanity. As long as it allows me to continue, I want for nothing else,” says James. “But I’m 32 years in and don’t feel like I work at all. Even though people tell me I’m a workaholic, I really don’t understand why.”